After creating the Soviet Union, Lenin died and a ruthless power struggle transformed Russia into the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin. World War II was followed by bipolar Cold War opposition with the West. The experiment of communism finally collapsed in 1991, having survived for 74 years.
In the beginning, the prospects of the Bolsheviks were frail. Nevertheless, Lenin was able to consolidate their power by making peace with Germany, nationalizing all the land, and creating an effective system of repressions.
On 7 November 1917, the Russian SFSR (Soviet Federative Socialist Republic) was declared. Lenin’s first government was called, “The Council of People’s Commissars.”
On 30 December 1922, the Soviet Union (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, USSR) was formed. It initially contained only four republics: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and the Transcaucasian Republic. By the end of the USSR, there were fifteen republics.
In 1918, the Constituent Assembly was dissolved and all parties, except the Communist Party, were banned. The highest institutions of the party were the Politburo and the Presidium. The most important official (the actual ruler) was the General Secretary of the party. The parliament, formally the highest organ, but which, in reality, followed the guidelines of the Politburo and Presidium, was called the Supreme Soviet. The government was first called, “The Council of People’s Commissars,” and later (after World War II), the, “Council of Ministers.”
A special secret police force, called the Cheka, was organized in 1917 by Felix Dzerzhinsky. It was later named the OGPU, NKVD, KGB and FSB. This highly effective organization began the Red Terror campaign against all who opposed the new Bolshevik government.
The Soviet Union attempted to spread its influence and communism all over the world, especially to its neighbors. In 1919, the Communist International (Comintern) was formed. Its aim was to unite all communist organizations worldwide, to carry out provocations, and to initiate revolutions in other countries.
After World War II, the Soviet Union was successful in establishing its supremacy over the Eastern European countries, and in establishing governments that started building socialism in them.
During its lifetime, the Soviet Union had numerous indirect armed conflicts, over hegemony, with the United States in several parts of the world.
The New Economic Policy (NEP) was Lenin’s plan to help get Russia’s economy back on track after seven devastating years of war. The generally effective plan allowed private enterprise, to some extent, and focused on stimulating production.
By 1921, Russia had been at war for seven long years. Although the communists had eventually won the war, the country was in a catastrophic state. Industrial production sank to 20% in comparison with that of 1913. All through the Russian Civil War, the economy had been running on War-Communism, which meant taking everything from its people by force. Along with crops, the next year’s seed, sometimes, also had to be confiscated. This resulted in large-scale hunger.
The famine of 1921-22 took the lives of an estimated five million people who died of starvation and disease. The disaster was primarily caused by the combination of war, drought, and insufficient government measurements. Also cannibalism occurred on several occasions, especially in the Volga River basin.
In many rural areas, armed rebellions occurred that the government did not hesitate to put down ruthlessly. Tanks, war planes, and even gas, were weapons used against rebelling peasants. Of all the resistance against the Bolshevik rule, the single most dangerous threat was the Kronstadt Rebellion of 1921.
It was about the elite military unit, the sailors of Kronstadt, trying to save the achievements of the revolution from the hands of Bolsheviks. The Soviet leaders considered it a substantial threat and put it down with maximum force.
Lenin realized that seven years of war and despair had to be followed by another seven years of recovery. In February 1921, the New Economic Policy (NEP) was announced at the Tenth Party Congress.
The NEP was a step towards capitalism. Private enterprises were allowed again, and forced requisition was replaced by taxes. Peasants were allowed to sell their goods on the market. It enabled the emergence of the new class of prosperous farmers (NEPmen), who were later renamed kulaks, and destroyed by Stalin.
The New Economic Policy had positive effect. By 1928 the economy was back to its pre-war state. NEP was abolished by Stalin in 1928, and the first Five Year Plan was introduced.
Stalin’s reign was a time of great terror, collectivization and industrialization. It was practically a war against his own people. For two decades the whole society was paralyzed by fear on many levels.
After Lenin’s death in 1924, Joseph Stalin used clever conspiracies, as well as murder, to eliminate his rivals one by one. After forcing his main rival, Trotsky, into exile, Stalin finally became the unquestionable ruler of Soviet Union in 1929.
The massive leap of industrialization was all about making up for Russia’s backwardness, and turning it into an industrial power at the expense of agriculture. The first Five Year Plan (1928-32), was about meeting this objective in only four years. In order to achieve the demands of the government, quotas were introduced, and statistics were often faked.
In the countryside, new state-run collective farms, named kolkhozes, were introduced. People were made to work by force. More prosperous farmers were named kulaks and repressed. The result was the great famine of 1932-33. It was especially harsh in Ukraine, known as the Holodomor. The total death toll was about seven million.
The Great Terror (also known as the Great Purge), campaign was unleashed in 1934, after the assassination of Stalin’s political rival, Sergey Kirov.
The new terror system was organized and carried out by the secret police, OGPU, later NKVD. Under their leaders, Genrikh Yagoda, Nikolay Yezhov, and Lavrenty Beria, people were sent to the Gulag concentration camps.
Stalin’s political rivals, former comrades and allies, also intelligentsia, doctors and army officers, and some national minorities, were prosecuted in the purge trials from 1936. All in all, between six and eight million people were arrested, and around one million of them executed.
Industrialization, at the expense of inexhaustible human resources, may have turned out to be quite successful in terms of industrial development, but it definitely was not a sustainable model in the long run. The total death toll, of Stalin’s reign, is estimated to be at least fifteen million.
World War II was the most widespread and destructive war in history. It was a military conflict that grew out of the consequences of the First World War. The Soviet Union came out of World War II more powerful than ever. The only balancing power was the United States of America (US).
In the 1930’s, the system created, according to the Treaty of Versailles, by the winners of World War I, began breaking down, and the political climate in Europe became very tense. Germany, under Adolph Hitler, began taking land that was inhabited by Germans. At the same time Stalin was also preparing for war.
On 23 August 1939, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of mutual non-aggression, between Russia and Germany, was signed. It gave Hitler and Stalin a free hand to attack their spheres of interest in Europe. The first target was Poland. On 17 September 1939, Stalin followed Hitler and invaded the Eastern half of Poland.
In November 1939, Stalin declared war on Finland. The Winter War ended with an informal defeat for Stalin. Of one million men sent there, at least 200,000 died, and Finland remained independent, although it had to cede some border areas to Soviet Union. In 1940, Stalin also annexed the Baltic States.
Although neither decided to keep to the non-aggression pact, Hitler made the first move, attacking Russia on 22 June 1941. Operation Barbarossa, as it was called, came as a shock to Stalin. Thus, the German-Soviet war (1941–45) began. In Russia, it is known as the, “Great Patriotic War.”
The Soviet Union was not yet ready for war, and Hitler’s blitzkrieg (“lightning war” tactic) was a huge success. After five months, all the land between Leningrad (formerly Petrograd) and Rostov had been invaded. The Siege of Leningrad (1941-44) lasted an unprecedented 900 days, but with little success. Hitler was also unable to conquer Moscow in the winter of 1941.
The turning point, in World War II, was Germany’s defeat at the Battle of Stalingrad (1942–43), near the southern oil fields that Hitler badly needed. Up to two million men lost their lives there. Under the commanders, Georgy Zhukov and Konstantin Rokossovsky, Hitler’s army was forced to withdraw. After the Battle of Kursk (August 1943), it was clear that Germany would lose the war. Other most notable Soviet commanders, who contributed to the victory, were Ivan Konev, Vasily Chuikov and Alexander Vasilevsky.
In February 1945, the Allied leaders, Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin, met at the Yalta Conference in Crimea, where the post-war world order was agreed on. The fact that Soviet troops were just 60 km from Berlin, gave Stalin an incredibly strong negotiating position.
After Germany surrendered on 9 May 1945 (Soviet time), Stalin was reluctant to withdraw his troops, and went on to turn Eastern Europe countries into his satellite states.
After World War II, people found themselves in a bipolar world order with two opposing camps: Liberal democratic Western countries, led by the US, and the communist states of the Eastern Bloc, led by the USSR. Although there was no outright global war between the two, there were many regional ones. So the second half of the 20th century, until 1991, became known as the, “Era of Cold War.”
The destruction and loss of life in World War II exceeded that of the First World War by many times. At least 50 million people died, thousands of cities were destroyed, borders were redrawn, and entire nations deported. There was reconstruction work of enormous proportions necessary.
The war greatly changed the global balance of power. Germany was divided into Allied occupation zones, Italy and Japan were put aside, France and Great Britain had weakened, the United States and the Soviet Union, soon both in possession of an atomic bomb, had more power than ever before.
Distrust grew into open conflict very soon, and the Iron curtain fell between the East and the West. Stalin established communist governments in Eastern Europe and formed the Eastern Bloc of satellite states. The United States launched the financial aid program, named the Marshall Plan, to recover Europe. The Soviet Union forced its satellite states to refuse the aid.
In 1948, Stalin blocked access to the Western sectors of Berlin. The Berlin Blockade had little effect, as the Allied forces opened a constant airlift of food and fuel to help the city survive. Berlin was the symbol of the Cold War again later, when, in 1961, Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, ordered the construction of the Berlin Wall between West and East Berlin. The wall survived for twenty-eight years.
In 1949, the United States, and its Western European allies, formed a common military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The Soviet Union responded in 1955, by forming the Warsaw Pact.
Following the Truman Doctrine, the United States tried their best to restrain the spread of communism in the Third World countries that were supported and financed by the Soviet Union. The communists were successful in China and Vietnam. The Korean War yielded no substantial results, and the Korean peninsula remains divided to this day. The most frightening moment of the escalating arms race, was probably the Cuban Missile Crisis that took the world very near to a nuclear war.
The last years of Stalin were full of terror and fear. Already in his seventies, the leader was growing extremely paranoid, and was allegedly planning another large-scale wave of repressions. Before he could launch them. he died, after suffering a stroke, on 5 March 1953.
The period, known as the, “Khrushchev Thaw,” during the 1950’s and the beginning of the 1960’s, was the most promising, open, and prosperous time in Soviet history. It was Nikita Khrushchev who banished Stalin’s reign of terror and improved people’s living standards.
After Stalin’s death in 1953, a fierce fight for power began between his ministers, Lavrenty Beria, Georgy Malenkov, and Nikita Khrushchev. Over the next few years, Khrushchev managed to gain the upper hand, and he subdued his opponents.
Khrushchev was a self-educated countryman, and he was eager to reform the agricultural sector. The, “Virgin Lands Campaign,” was initially a great success. Peasants were encouraged to take up new farmlands in Central Asia. The overall area of harvested land, indeed, increased by 50% in the middle of the 1950’s.
Khrushchev’s time is known as the, “Thaw,” heralding a more relaxed atmosphere for everyday life. It all began at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956. In Khrushchev’s secret speech, he criticized Stalin for his tyranny, thereby effectively ending Stalin’s cult of personality. A number of political prisoners were freed from the Gulag camps, and some of Stalin’s victims were rehabilitated.
In 1956, the Soviet Union faced a popular uprising, against Soviet hegemony, in Hungary. It was mercilessly put down with tanks, and about 3,000 civilians lost their lives. Nevertheless, Khrushchev’s popularity grew at home and abroad. In 1959 he was the first Soviet leader to visit the United States.
The Soviet Union overtook the United States many times in the space race. In 1957 they sent the world’s first satellite, Sputnik 1, into orbit. Then, in 1961, Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, became the first man in space. Very optimistic plans were made for the future at that time. Khrushchev advocated peaceful coexistence with the United States, at the same time reassuring the Russian public that the Soviet Union would soon surpass the United States economically, and attain true communism in the near future.
Khrushchev failed in three cases: China, Cuba, and corn. Differences of opinion arose between Krushchev and the communist leader of China, Mao Zedong, who accused Khrushchev of pro-westernness. After the 1960’s, there was more competition than cooperation between China and the Soviet Union. Also Khrushchev’s plan of revolutionizing Russian agriculture, with extensive corn growing, was a total failure. Most importantly, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis delivered a decisive blow to Soviet prestige.
In 1964, Khrushchev’s more conservative party members conspired against him. He had to step down, and the power was handed to Leonid Brezhnev. Khrushchev lived quietly, as a pensioner, until his death in 1971.
The Khrushchev Thaw was followed by the 20-year-rule of Leonid Brezhnev. It was a time of relaxed foreign relations and internal standstill. During Brezhnev’s, “Era of Stagnation,” the Soviet Union became politically, economically, and socially backward, and the need for reforms grew increasingly acute.
Many high level communists believed that the Khrushchev Thaw had gone too far and that his politics needed to be reversed. Khrushchev’s rule was replaced by the joint leadership of three men: Leonid Brezhnev, Alexey Kosygin, and Nikolay Podgorny. There was some experimentation with reforms in the beginning, but, in a few years, Brezhnev managed to outmaneuver the other two. With Leonid Brezhnev now in full power, the reactionary political groups had won.
The following two decades became known as the, “Era of Stagnation.” It was a time of standstill and limited freedom. Censorship increased, and political dissidents were oppressed and imprisoned. Communist propaganda saw its revival, also there was less criticism of Stalin’s crimes. Stagnation became visible in all levels of society: in the economy, in politics, and in culture.
In 1968, Czechoslovakia was going through the Prague Spring. The leader, Alexander Dubček, was experimenting with liberal reforms, which were to be called, “… socialism with a human face.” Brezhnev, and his advisors in Moscow, decided to send tanks in Prague to put down the popular movement. Thus, the right of the Soviet Union to intervene militarily in the affairs of other satellite states, came to be known as, “The Brezhnev Doctrine.”
The time from 1969 – 72 is known as the, “Relaxation of Tensions,” or, “Détente.” The Soviet Union and the United States made several efforts to mutually contain the arms race and minimize conflict. Its peak was Richard Nixon’s visit to Moscow in 1972.
Another highlight was the 1975 Helsinki Accords, when Western countries agreed to accept Soviet hegemony over Eastern Europe in exchange for more civil rights for its inhabitants.
Thereafter, relations turned colder again, and remained so until the Perestroika of 1985. It was reinforced by the Afghan War (1979-89), where the Soviet Union was unable to conquer Afghanistan.
Brezhnev died in 1982. He was seventy-five years old. Two of his followers, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, were also sick and old and did nothing to reform the Soviet Union, though they carried on the, “Era of Gerontocracy,” (rule of old people). By the mid-1980’s, the Soviet Union was no longer at a standstill, but rather in an extensive political, economic, and social crisis. It needed reforms in order to survive.
When Mikhail Gorbachev assumed power in 1985, his goal was to bring the Soviet Union out of its economic and political deadlock, while still preserving socialism. Instead, he unintentionally ignited the process that led to the collapse of the whole Soviet system.
Mikhail Gorbachev was only fifty-four when he was elected General Secretary in March 1985. He brought fresh air and new thinking to the party.
The Soviet model of a planned economy had completely fallen into crisis, and Gorbachev was determined to launch large-scale reform campaigns: Perestroika (restructuring), and Glasnost (openness).
New economic reforms demanded funds and Russia could no longer keep up with the United States in the global arms race. Gorbachev proposed to end the arms race and establish warmer diplomatic relations. For this, he repeatedly met with President Ronald Reagan and relations did, indeed, relax.
He ended the Afghan War, and began pulling Soviet troops out of Eastern Europe. On 9 November 1989, the Berlin Wall was taken down by the public during a mass demonstration. Meanwhile, other Eastern Bloc states also became democracies, which Gorbachev could not help but accept.
In 1989, Gorbachev’s reforms introduced presidential power, and the first free elections in Russia in seventy-two years. The newly elected Congress of People’s Deputies assembled, for the first time, on 25 May 1989.
But Gorbachev’s economic reforms did not work, and the living standard of people worsened. In many Soviet Republics, the struggle for autonomy, and then for independence, gathered momentum. Moscow sent tanks to put down popular movements, but it was already too late.
It became more and more evident that the Soviet Union was in itself a relic of the past. Gorbachev was juggling between the reformists and the reactionaries, and he was preparing the new Union Treaty to save the empire. Meanwhile, the importance of the Russian Soviet Federative Republic, and its president, Boris Yeltsin, was growing.
On 19 August 1991, the August Putsch began. The reactionary group, led by Vladimir Kryuchkov, Dmitry Yazov, and Gennady Yanayev, locked Gorbachev in his Crimean estate, and tried to establish power under the State Committee on the State of Emergency. Tanks were sent to Moscow, but people blocked their way, and Boris Yeltsin took control.
On his return, Gorbachev lost most of his authority to Yeltsin. On 8 December 1991, Boris Yeltsin, Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine, and Stanislav Shushkevich of Belarus, signed the creation treaty of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), without informing Gorbachev beforehand. The Soviet Union was officially dissolved on 26 December 1991.